Born in 1988, Ivan Tverdovsky is part of a new generation of Russian directors who use unusual approaches to address wider social questions rather than specific political issues. But those unusual approaches are, to some degree, a response to a political situation, where art is increasingly forced to conform to state expectations: where a biopic of Tchaikovsky denies his homosexuality and where ‘obscene language’ is banned.
Tverdovsky’s father, a documentarian, failed to discourage his son from becoming a film-maker, and after making some documentaries of his own, he turned to features with Corrections Class (2014), based on Ekaterina Murashova’s novel and set in an unsupportive school for physically and psychologically impaired. His second feature, Zoology, covers the same territory: unappreciated outsiders in drearily enervating surroundings, finding love and its attendant complications. Both films have a documentary feel, balanced with elements of magic realism: Zoology develops its fabulous edge when the heroine grows a tail.
Zoology won prizes at the Sochi Kinotavr and Karlovy Vary festivals, and has or will be shown at festivals including Toronto, Zurich, San Sebastian and Chicago. But as yet it’s not been picked up for distribution in the UK, so the LFF may be your only chance.
Natasha is a middle-aged, put-upon administrator at a zoo, where her colleagues are mostly interested in mocking her, speculating on her virginity and whether a bout of illness is food poisoning or cancer (Tverdovsky tries to blindside us with a third option), and ensuring their own misdemeanours go discovered.
Home life is barely better, as Natasha’s religiously judgemental mother tells lurid stories about non-Christians (as so often in Russian films, there’s no father on the scene).
When Natasha develops pains in her lower back she goes to hospital, and Piotr, the radiologist, is the first empathetic character in the film. He expresses no particular surprise at finding her tail and by her second visit she’s already using the affectionate ‘Petya’. A strange May-to-September love affair develops, oddly innocent, filled with inconsequential fun and minor irresponsibilities.
But having revealed the tail, Tverdovsky doesn’t spend very much time on it: it’s a Hitchcockian McGuffin: a device to kick off the narrative but which we don’t really need to know much about (what are The 39 Steps?) It pops up (or, rather, out) every now and again to remind us that it’s there but Tverdovsky is more interested in more general questions.
What it’s about is an outsider defining themselves in and against society. Natasha is picked on at work and home and rejected by neighbours when her condition becomes apparent. Her mother’s and neighbours’ superstitious religiosity and fascination with the soul contrasts with her practicality and being more comfortable with ‘soul-less’ animals. And age. Love transforms Natasha from a dowdy middle-aged woman into a giggling teenager, dancing around her bedroom and taking selfies, going to a cheesy Russian disco, and being told off by her mother for dressing inappropriately. But the full (adult, animal) consequences of love bring a final crisis.
Zoology’s documentary feel means that, like Piotr, we quickly accept Natasha’s tail: the hand-held camera follows her down corridors or on her solitary beach walks. The melancholy mood is intensified by the pallid, blue-green pallete and the sparse use of music, mostly selections from Tchaikovsky’s piano works.
Natalia Pavlenkova dominates the film, a finely nuanced performance that, though often wordless, captures Natasha’s brow-beaten, slightly dislocated quality and growing confidence equally well.
Fables have always been popular in Russia. Ivan Krylov was a sort of latter-day Aesop, and such ‘covert’ narratives were useful in Soviet times. But there’s less need for such artifices now and Tverdovsky move further away from the form in refusing to give the film a clear ‘moral ending’. I won’t give it away, but it might imply Natasha moving forward or back with her life.
Though it’s early in his fiction film career, Zoology’s subtle balance between reality and fable confirms Tverdovsky as a director to watch.
Meanwhile, here’s the trailer:
- Writer/Director: Ivan Tverdovsky
- Production companies: New People Film Company; Arizona Productions; Moviebrats Pictures.
- Cast: Natalia Pavlenkova, Dmitri Groshev, Irina Chipizhenko, Maria Tokareva
Buy tickets here